It was a cool, sunny day. The wind was howling around the Cathedral Spires and I was perched alongside our guide, Russell, at the top of the first pitch of Spire 2. The first of three pitches, it had been easy and fun. I sat and looked out over the valley while the other climbers followed. The view was amazing.
This was my first multi-pitch climb. I had been nervous and excited about it, not quite knowing what to expect. And as I sat at that belay station, looking out at the trees and the valley below, a slow panic welled up inside of me.
Four climbers and one guide means some idle time at each belay station. And, for me, that means time for my mind to spin. I, like many climbers, have a fear of heights. We were quite a ways above the ground and the plan was to go even higher. The third pitch would take us up into the wind and we would be much more exposed than we were at that first belay. Those thoughts led to a feeling of panic, which amplified the thoughts, which amplified the panic…. I was afraid of how afraid I might be at the top. A dirty trick for my mind to play on me.
Time passed, and the panic intensified, feeding off of itself. I felt tears running down my cheeks. The reality was that I was safe. I was clipped into an anchor. I was with a great guide. I was sitting in a really secure spot. I was safe. But my mind was working really hard to convince me otherwise.
I asked to be lowered down.
I sat at the base of the climb for a long time, just me and my thoughts. I don’t know exactly how much time passed. An hour? Maybe two? I spent the time looking out on the valley, listening to the wind, and reflecting on what had just happened. It was incredibly peaceful. I watched the other climbers pop out of the protected 2nd pitch and climb to the top. A little while later I watched them rappel down to meet me.
I was disappointed, but I had a lot of time to sit with it. In my mind, I replayed what had just happened, both in my head and in reality. The trick my mind had just played on me was a familiar one. A set of distorted and irrational thoughts had shaped my perception of reality. Having identified the thought process that had sabotaged my climb, I felt a renewed determination for the next day.
We would be climbing “Garfield Goes to Washington,” a 3 pitch, 400′ climb in the Rushmore area.
On the drive over the next morning, Russell and I talked about my experience the day before. We both knew that I could complete this climb. It was a matter of figuring out how to work through it in my head. The fear is normal. The trick is dealing with it.
We met up with the other climbers, gathered our gear, water, and lunches, and off we went. A short, 10 minute approach from the car and we were at the base of the climb.
I took a deep breath, and up the first pitch I went, feeling good about the climbing.
I reached the first belay point, clipped in, and sat down. It was super comfy; a nice bench of rock with a back to lean against. Just like the day before, I was facing outward. A direct view of the ground below. I had some time up there while the others followed.
The fear was lurking, the distorted thoughts were pushing their way in. Only this time, I recognized them for what they were. A divergence from reality.
Whenever my mind started spinning or playing evil tricks on me, I distracted myself. I looked around at the rock that was right next to me instead of out at the view. I took pictures. I talked to my fellow climbers. Each time, I was able to catch the panic before it spiraled out of control.
Time to continue on. Russell asked me how I felt. This was the point where I could be lowered down if I needed to be. I’m not going to lie, I thought about it. But instead, I replied “I have to do this.” He said “ok,” and before I could change my mind, off he went up the next pitch. Thank goodness that option to be lowered was gone!
While I climbed, everything else disappeared. My brain and body were occupied figuring out how to move myself higher up the rock.
I met my fellow climbers at the next belay station; a standing belay with the rock at our feet angled down and away from us. I had a beautiful view of the wall directly in front of me, so I mostly concentrated on that. I was in a good place, though. I was able to take a look around on occasion and actually enjoy the view.
Time for the last pitch. This pitch was the most exposed. We had been protected from the sun and the wind for most of the way up, and that all went away about halfway up this last climb. It was a scary climb. At one point, the wall turned into a slab that angled away, and all hand and foot holds disappeared. Although the climbing wasn’t difficult, it was quite a head trip.
More than 300 ft above the ground below, I kept moving upwards. And as I approached Russell, I could see the huge smile on his face. I had just done something big. Not only physically, but psychologically. I knew it, and he knew it. I can’t describe how I felt when I reached that last anchor, except that there was an immense sense of pride and accomplishment. I had just climbed a 400 ft exposed wall of rock.
That moment, something changed in me. I became stronger. I had proven to myself that I am not a slave to my anxious thoughts; I don’t have to let them control me. I have the power to keep moving. The experience was powerful.
Climbing is so many things. It’s fun, it’s good exercise, and it forms strong bonds between people. But, for me, the biggest piece is the psychological training. Those mental skills transfer to my everyday life, and I am a more capable, more balanced person because of it.